Value of Human Life

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The processes of Risk Assessment, Risk Management, and the setting of Environmental policy have tended to carefully avoid any direct consideration of the value of human life. A criticism is that if we allow some level of risk to persist in return for economic benefits, this is putting a value on human life (or at least health) and that this is inappropriate because a human life is invaluable¨Cits value is infinite. The criticism is indeed valid; these processes sometimes do implicitly put a finite, if un-stated, value on human life.

A bit of reflection, however, reveals that in fact we put a finite value on human life in many aspects of our society. One example is the automobile. Each year, hundreds or thousands of US citizens are killed in car accidents. This is a significant risk. Yet we allow the risk to continue, although it could be substantially reduced or eliminated by banning cars or through strict, nation-wide speed limits of 15 or 20 mph. But we do not ban cars and allow speeds of 65 mph on major highways because we derive benefits, largely economic, from doing so. Hence, our car "policy" sets a finite value on human life.

You can take issue with my car analogy because, when it comes to cars, it is the driver who his taking the risk for his or her own benefit, while in the case of chemical exposure, risk is imposed on some people for the benefit of others. This position, however, is different from saying that a human life has infinite value. This position says that a finite value is acceptable if the individual in question derives a direct benefit from that valuation. In other words, the question is then one of equity in the risk-benefit trade-off, and the fact that we do place a finite value on life is not of issue.

Another way to address this question is to ask, "How much are we willing to spend to save a human life? The following is from the EnviroScan web site. This is clearly an anti-environmental web site, but I would guess that they are...
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